A court in Cambodia’s capital on Tuesday officially charged a former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) commune councilor with “incitement to commit a felony,” a day after Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed to “eradicate” the opposition party’s local network for allegedly seeking to topple his government.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Sun Thun, who currently works as a teacher, under Articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code and remanded him to Prey Sar Prison awaiting trial, his son Sun Theany told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Sun Thun, who regularly called into RFA talk shows to express views critical of the government, was taken into custody on Monday and sent to the court wearing nothing but a krama, or traditional Khmer scarf, his son said. After he was sent to Prey Sar on Tuesday, a court official notified Sun Theany that the Prison Department had suspended visits due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“We just requested lawyers and it will take a few days for them to meet with him,” he said.
RFA was unable to reach Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Kuch Kimlong for comment on Tuesday, but defense lawyer Sam Sokong confirmed that he had received a request to represent Sun Thun.
Sun Thun’s arrest came hours after Hun Sen told an inauguration ceremony in the coastal city of Sihanoukville that the CNRP was trying to start an insurrection from exile through its local supporters by calling on members of the public to halt loan payments amid the economic fallout from the pandemic.
“You are mobilizing a movement, your plan is to make the banks stop working, and your intention is to destroy the country,” Hun Sen said, referring to acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who has urged the government to assist farmers and workers hit by the outbreak that cannot afford to repay their debts.
Hun Sen threatened to “arrest them all” if Sam Rainsy and other CNRP brass in exile order their party’s former officials to advocate for nonrepayment of loans, but assured those gathered at the ceremony that “nothing is to worry about, because we have beheaded [their party].”
In September 2017 CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested over an alleged plot to overthrow the government and his party was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November that year for its supposed role in the scheme.
The move to ban the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Speaking to RFA on Tuesday, Sam Rainsy said Hun Sen is “losing control” of the country’s economy during the outbreak and attempting to use the opposition as a scapegoat.
Amid the health crisis, he said, Hun Sen should implement economic reforms, eliminate corruption, and work to attract more investors.
“He shouldn’t be using arrests and imprisonment to try to resolve the economic crisis, and threats won’t help either,” he said.
The CNRP chief urged the public to delay paying off their debts to banks or microfinance lenders if they cannot earn an income, adding that the government should act when Cambodians are having trouble putting food on their tables.
Political analyst Seng Sary told RFA that while many local opposition activists have been arrested, people aren’t paying off their loans because they can’t afford to—not because of Sam Rainsy’s comments.
“People can’t afford to pay the banks because they can’t earn any money—this is the reason for Sam Rainsy’s appeal,” he said.
Last month, several villagers told RFA that as the coronavirus pandemic continues to hammer the economy, many of them are being forced to sell their livestock and farms to pay off debts to banks and microfinance institutions.
Soeung Sengkaruna, spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA that recent arrests of CNRP activists and government critics are “politically motivated,” noting that many had been taken into custody without a warrant. At least 30 people have been detained for spreading “fake news” and other offenses since the start of the pandemic, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Soeung Sengkaruna also called the arrest of Sun Thun in a krama “inhumane.”
“This was a politically motivated arrest because we know that this activist was not involved in any political activities,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.